Bit Player for Feb. 16, 1997
This is an expanded version of the column that appears in print.
By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
The workings of the Internet are confusing enough without the myths that surround it. Here are some myth-busters you can clip out and stick on the refrigerator.
Myth 1: You need Netscape to get onto the Internet, or to get onto the Web.
Fact: This is without doubt the biggest myth of the Net. Somehow, "Netscape" became synonymous with "Web browser," and even with the entire idea of getting onto the Internet.
But Netscape is just a Web browser. You don't need it. (I don't have it on my main computer, and I'm on the Internet all the time.) You don't need it for anything.
Then what is Netscape? Netscape Navigator (the actual name) is a program from Netscape Communications that browses Web pages. It also handles e-mail and newsgroup reading, but it does those two additional tasks relatively poorly. (Separate e-mail and newsreader programs are far better.)
You do need a browser, of course. An excellent alternative to Netscape is Internet Explorer. There are other browsers, too. Even Mosaic, the browser Netscape's designers came up with when they were in college, is still a good browser.
(Netscape Communications continues to act like it's the only company that makes browsers, but this will change. Microsoft makes Internet Explorer, so Netscape has some fearful competition. And although Netscape had about 85 percent of the browser market a year ago, it has only 70 percent now. With the introduction in February 1997 of a Macintosh version of Internet Explorer 3.0, a Microsoft product that has received rave reviews, Netscape's longtime hold on the Mac market is likely to fade quickly. Netscape is not given away, despite the apparent public perception that it is free, but Microsoft does not charge for Internet Explorer.)
Myth 2: When you sign up with an Internet provider, you have to be careful. You might end up with an old Web browser, or some ancient e-mail program. Everyone knows you're stuck with the software you get from your Internet provider.
Fact: This is another odd myth that will not go away. Even an old Web browser will work just fine to get you onto a Web site where you can download a new Web browser. The software you get from your Internet Service Provider doesn't matter; you can replace it with a better Web browser, a fancier e-mail program or anything else, just by downloading what you need off the Web.
Myth 3: America Online is a great way to get onto the Internet. And you can send and receive e-mail, too.
Fact: I call this the "AOL is God" myth. It's spawned by millions of Americans who have never used any other means of getting online. They have no idea what's really happening out on the Internet, because they can't get out on the Internet and do most of the things that the rest of us are doing. There's quite a psychology at work here.
So here are the facts: America Online is far down on the list of good ways to get onto the Internet. It's slow, and you can't run many of the standard Internet programs everyone else is running. And AOL's e-mail is a poor example of the way normal Internet mail programs should be designed.
Myth 4: Faxing is dumb. All you can send is faxes. You need an Internet connection to send files back and forth.
Fact: Modern fax software can send files, pictures, meeting schedules or anything else you can send over the Internet. If both computers are running the latest fax software (the fax software in Windows 95 meets that standard), the two computers will send whatever you want using the fax modem. (Check the Help in Microsoft Exchange if you have Windows 95.)
My guess is that the fax myth is the most confusing one for nearly everyone. How can a fax contain a file? How can a fax send a spreadsheet?
Easy. When a modern fax program on one PC connects with a modern fax program on another PC, it asks (in computer talk, of course) whether the other PC can handle digital transmissions of data instead of fax transmissions. If the answer is yes, everything is sent in file form instead of fax form.
Myth 5: Connecting computers in an office to the Internet is a lot of work. You might as well let Mary and Joe use their AOL accounts from their cubicles instead.
Fact: If your office PCs are already connected by a network, and they're running Windows 95, use one of them as the Internet server through a standard $20-per-month dialup connection to an Internet Service Provider. Add NetProxy or WinGate to that computer, and every other PC on the office network call dial out onto the Internet through the server connection. Many users can be connected at the same time. (I've tested this and it works great.) Net Proxy can be found at http://www.grok.co.uk/netproxy/index.html, and WinGate can be downloaded from http://deerfield.com/wingate/.
In case this last fact is confusing, let me put this in simple terms: If you use NetProxy or WinGate, you can put everyone on a PC network onto the Internet. Let's say the Internet dialup connection is on Mary's Windows 95 PC. If John wants to check his mail, he merely runs his e-mail program. It connects to the proxy server (provided by NetProxy or WinGate) across the office network, and the proxy server either dials up the Internet (if Mary's modem is not online) or immediately uses the current connection. (Yes, John can get his own e-mail through Mary's PC dialup connection; his software simply passes its request for a connection to John's e-mail server through the line that is live to the Internet through Mary's PC dialup connection.)
If Kimberly wants to browse the Web, she just runs her Web browser. If Jim wants to do a quick ftp transfer, he just runs his ftp application. And so on.
It's that easy.
Make sure you pass this along to the folks who count beans in your office, so they'll know how easy and cheap it can be to get everyone connected.